Saffron from Quercy is really worth its weight in gold
October is the harvest period for saffron, one of the most expensive spices in the world. It is cultivated in Quercy, a former region in the south-west, which includes the Lot and part of the neighboring departments.
Here, Crocus sativus has been cultivated since the Middle Ages and was probably introduced from the Middle East via the Crusades in the 11th century and by the Arabs who settled in Spain.
A flourishing trade developed and saffron from Quercy enjoyed an international reputation, and was particularly popular in Germany and Norway until the beginning of the 19th century, when its popularity declined.
In 1998, some local farmers came up with the idea of ââproducing it commercially again, as there was a revival in fashion for spices and local products. The families had continued to grow a few crocuses in their vegetable garden, and some of them were used to launch the idea. Today there is an association with around fifty producers selling under the Safran du Quercy label, with strict rules, a guarantee of quality.
FranÃ§oise Laval was one of the first to join the association and has been cultivating bulbs for 22 years. She recently retired, but continues to grow the purple petal crocus that she is passionate about:
âI have always loved flowers and when I read in a local newspaper that a group was relaunching saffron, I was drawn to the idea, and went to a meeting. Finally, I gave up my salaried work and concentrated on saffron, and I grew fruit shrubs next to it, because you cannot live on saffron alone.
The autumn crocus thrives on the well-drained limestone soil of Quercy. The bulbs are dormant during the summer months, when they can be dug up, divided, cleaned, dried and replanted: âWe replant every three years because the bulbs are best in their second year. In winter, the bulbs divide and form new ones. At the end of spring, at the beginning of summer, the leaves will disappear and the earth will be bare.
Before planting, we prepare the soil, because although they grow with little water, they need nutritious soil. A tip for all those who want to grow them in their garden; do not put them in a vegetable or flower bed where you will water often in the summer. They hate to sit in water.
‘it is a long and delicate job to open the flowers and pick the three red filiform stigmas’
The crocuses flower over a period of four weeks in October: “Every morning they are picked just after the morning dew, before they have opened, because if they stay too long in the sun, they will be covered. pollen, and not as clean as we need it to be. We go there every day and choose only those who are ready. Then it is a long and delicate job to open the flowers and pluck the three stigmas in the shape of a red thread, which are then dried for 20 to 30 minutes in a dehydrator.
The association has strict rules. Anyone who smokes is prohibited, as tobacco will alter the delicate flavors of saffron. It takes a lot of manpower, but it is very difficult to employ additional manpower for such a short season. Madame Laval calls on her family and friends and makes it a party:
âWe work, discuss and tell stories, just like in the good old days when people gathered around a fire to shell nuts. At the end, we share a drink and a piece of cake.
The end result is measured in grams: âWhen I was in full production, I had about 300,000 flowers, which produced 400 grams, and that was a huge amount. Last year I had around 100 grams and still sell to anyone passing by.
She loves her saffron: âThe taste is slightly bitter, mixed with honey and sweetness. It brings together all the flavors of a dish, like a conductor, and you taste the saffron notes at the end. It’s nice. If you put a spoonful of saffron jam with its red strands on a white plate, it shines in a beautiful color and brings a ray of sunshine in a dull winter day.
“You can create the most miraculous dishes with saffron”
She also loves to cook with: âYou can create the most miraculous dishes. It’s a dream with white foods; pears, peaches, apples and quinces, rice, fish and chicken, leeks, asparagus and zucchini. Every year for the village festival, I make zucchini and saffron soup, and it’s very popular.
The secret, she says, is to keep the saffron well, then let the flavors infuse for several hours:
âSaffron is at its best when it’s two years old, when the flavors are strongest, but it can keep for at least five years, if not longer. It’s said to be worth its weight in gold, but if you’re using it at its peak, it’s not too expensive, as you need very few strands. It should be stored in a glass jar, protected from light and humidity.
âYou should avoid cooking the dish with the saffron in it, as far as possible, but add it at the end of cooking. I always make my zucchini soup the day before, add the saffron after removing it from the heat and let it sit for up to a day. It’s more difficult with a risotto, where it’s a classic saffron recipe, but instead you can make the broth that you’ll cook the rice the night before, to let the flavors develop.
Claude-Emmanuel Robin would agree, and he has scientific proof to support it. He is a chef and his restaurant L’AllÃ©e des Vignes, in Cajarc, has both a classic Michelin star and a green star, for its sustainable approach to its cuisine.
He is also the first to have created a company, Latitude Safran, with a patented method to get the most out of saffron: âI wanted to know everything about this spice and I spent around â¬ 30,000 on research. I had the filaments analyzed in the laboratory. The first discovery was that Quercy saffron is indeed the best in France for flavor and better than many imports. Then there were tests to see how many filaments infused in what amount of water, at what temperature and for how long would give the best flavor. After several tries, we found the best results.
âI also discovered how to always produce the same effect by using different blends of different qualities of saffron. I now have a magic formula that I have patented. My company is dedicated to saffron and develops products flavored with saffron, such as foie gras, biscuits, cheeses, beers and other alcohols, canned fruits and vegetables. I started to sell my saffron water to restaurant chefs, who are happy to use the best taste saffron can give.
He says it gives new life to this wonderful spice: âYou can buy saffron syrups anywhere, but they all boiled the saffron with the water and sugar. If you add the saffron at the end, the result is completely different. Saffron is versatile and I have a menu with this spice used in both savory and sweet dishes.
Each year, Mr. Robin contributes to the Saffron Festival in Cajarc, which takes place on the fourth weekend of October with organized visits to producers, harvest demonstrations as well as a market for saffron products and restaurants offering saffron dishes.
Most of the Provencal herbs sold in stores are not authentically French
From tree to bottle: how the production of corks in France works